Beth Webster © Eggheads BBC
In one of the most entertaining – and educational – quiz shows on tv, the eponymous Eggheads are gathered together to form the most formidable quiz team in the country.
Lisa Botwright asks newest Egghead – Watford-based Beth Webster – how it feels to join this illustrious line-up…
“I don’t profess to be the best quizzer in the world, but I know some stuff, I think,” begins Beth Webster, modestly. To say this is an understatement is a little like saying that Professor Brian Cox ‘knows some stuff’ about physics, or that JK Rowling ‘knows some stuff’ about writing children’s books. Beth has just joined the ranks of arguably the most revered brains in the country: the Eggheads, who – as presenter Jeremy Vine ominously reminds their new opponents at the start of every episode – are “amongst the greatest quiz players in Britain”. His claim isn’t unreasonable: all the panellists have achieved huge question-and-answer success, usually at national quiz level and on television.
Beth’s pedigree includes the record for the most number of appearances for a woman on BBC Mastermind (five, in fact, over different series), including her very first taste of televised quizzing at the age of just 24. In 2013, Beth – who has a background in microbiology – achieved 16 correct answers from 16 questions, a perfect score that won her ‘the round of the week’ award for her knowledge of… The Muppets films. The Muppets films? “Yes, my particular specialist subjects are film and tv, particularly children’s tv. Also – surprisingly for a woman – sport. I love all sport!”
So how did Beth make the move from Mastermind aficionado to Egghead? “I applied for the show back in May – in fact, my audition was in the car park of Northamptonshire Cricket Club, where the World Quizzing Championships were being held.” The audition in question was actually for a place on the spin-off show, Make Me An Egghead, a programme created especially to launch a nationwide search for two new Eggheads, one male and one female.
“I was selected to appear, and travelled to Glasgow where the show is filmed at the beginning of July – so a very quick turnaround,” Beth continues. “I was successful in my semi-final and went on to meet a friend of mine, Julia Hobbs, in the final. It was a very tense show and I was getting incredibly nervous.” With egg-ceptional skill [sorry], Beth went on to beat Julia with a score of 10-6.
In the meantime, on the parallel show to find the next male Egghead, Steve Cooke from Bolsover, near Chesterfield, ‘cracked it’ [that’s the egg puns out of the way… promise] and both newcomers went on to make their Eggheads debut when series 18 began at the end of September.
With a bunch of people famous not only for their memory and intellect, but also for their steely competitiveness, I wonder how welcoming the existing Eggheads, some of whom have been on the panel since 2003, really are? Beth immediately jumps to their defence, declaring that “the other Eggheads are amongst the nicest people I have ever known: they were so reassuring and extremely kind in helping me learn the ropes.”
Quizzers are a tight-knit bunch; Beth has known fellow Eggheads Berry, Pat, Kevin and Dave for over a decade through the Quizzing Grand Prix Circuit, which holds regular events all over the country. Beth also plays in the ‘Quiz League of London’, as does Kevin – “but my team are in Division Three, and his are in Division One,” she is quick to point out. She’s also recently joined a ‘buzzer team’ quiz with Barry at the helm.
It’s easy to see that she has an enormous amount of admiration for her fellow Eggheads. So who is the best quizzer in the world? I ask, following on from my initial question. “That would be a coin toss between Pat Gibson and Kevin Ashman,” she declares.
Although quizzing at this level can be pretty lucrative for some people – just look at Judith Keppel’s million pound win on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (on which she was the very first contestant to win the jackpot) in her pre-Egghead days – most of the current panel still have ‘day jobs’. Beth’s sounds quite intriguing: “I’m currently Interim Head of Safety for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine… I manage the safety of the staff and the students, all postgraduates. To be honest, the toughest questions I get are from my day job.”
Good training, then, for the quizzing, but how else does she ‘gen up’ for a show? “I don’t list-learn, mainly because I think it’s a bit dull to learn that way; I like to relate facts to experience: for example, I know who was number one in summer 2001, as I was dancing to it at my graduation ball. And I was one of those type of children who was always saying ‘do you know?…’
Beth grew up on the Kent coast, but left home at 18 to go to university, and went on to live all over the south east. Ten years ago she moved to Watford with husband Simon and has since had two children, a boy and a girl, who are six years and 18 months old. “My son and my husband are used to seeing me on tv, as I first appeared on Mastermind well before I was married and my son was born. I can’t say they get excited any more – for my little boy, it’s just something that Mummy does.”
Keen to encourage potential quizzers, Beth urges: “Just give it a go… you always know more than you think you do. Read widely, making notes if you can, and gain experience at pub and school quizzes.”
Beth has a wonderfully calm on-screen exterior, which belies any hint of nerves – but does admit that sometimes she’s hiding a more turbulent interior. Speaking about her appearance on her very first episode of Eggheads, she confides: “My heart was thumping so loudly, I was worried it would get picked up on the microphone.”
Nevertheless, maybe the nerves are a small price to pay – after all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs…
Eggheads is on Mon-Fri, BBC Two at 6pm, and is looking for new contestants to take on the Eggheads! Teams of six can apply by emailing email@example.com or visit the website bbc.co.uk/takepart